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April 7, 2013

Baby Motor Chairs

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  Sunil Agrawal's research webpagehttp://mechsys4.me.udel.edu/research/index.phpAssociation for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI)http://www.aaai.org/home.html

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This mother's day, we bring you the story of one woman's dream to give her child mobility. This ScienCentral News video reports on research that is opening the door for special needs babies to explore the world-- with the help of robots.
[If you cannot see the flash video below, you can click here for a high quality mp4 video.]

Interviewees: Cole Galloway, University of Delaware
and Terri Peffley, Andrew's mother
--Produced by Sunita Reed --Edited byJames Eagen and Sunita Reed Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc

Robots and Babies

When Terri Peffley was 19 weeks pregnant with her fourth child, Andrew, she went in for a routine ultrasound hoping to find out whether it was a girl or boy and found out that he has a neural tube defect called spina bifida. Peffley, a pediatric occupational therapist, had a lot of experience with special needs children. After the initial shock, her training kicked in and she started planning.

“Once he was born I knew I wanted to get him up and moving just like the other kids his age would be, and I knew that it was going to take twice as long and [be] twice as hard, she recalls. “I felt this sort of time crunch or just fighting the clock. “

Peffley explains that because Andrew had very limited mobility in his legs, he was dependent on others to move him around. Special needs children do not usually get power mobility until they are three to five years old. She worried that Andrew’s self-esteem would be affected.

"I really didn’t want him to be on the sidelines. I wanted him to live life and be in the mix and do everything else that the other kids were doing as much as possible,” she says.

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Peffley did not know that the answer was about thirty minutes away at University of Delaware. It was only recently that pediatric researcher Cole Galloway and robotics engineer Sunil Agrawal had started working together. Galloway had worked for years with both typically developing and special needs children, but robots were never part of the picture. Agrawal had worked in robotics for almost 25 years and in the last seven years had started using robotics for rehabilitation of adults— but he had never worked with babies. He was working on a project with small robots that communicate with each other when he approached Cole with the idea of helping babies.

“I told Sunil, 'You know if, if, if'—and it’s a big if— 'if these babies will drive this robot, we might have the first power chair for young babies,'” recalls Galloway.

They teamed up to create the first infant-sized robotic wheelchairs and started testing them with normally developing infants. They found that children as young as six months old could learn to use the joystick that controls the chair. The robotic chairs are equipped with cameras that record the baby’s face and hands. They also monitor everywhere the baby goes and if there is contact with an obstacle. There is also a separate joystick so that an adult can take over the controls.

Andrew’s physical therapist, Tracy Stoner, also of University of Delaware, told Peffley about the research. Peffley contacted the researchers and Andrew became the first special needs baby to try out the robots. He caught on quickly and learned how to navigate. When Andrew outgrew the infant chairs, the researchers did not want him to be left without mobility. So they modified an adult power chair for Andrew.

So why don’t special needs kids get power mobility earlier?

“The big barrier is safety,” explains Galloway. “If you train a young infant to be able to drive around, what keeps the infant out of harms way? What keeps the infant from running into the coffee table, driving down the stairs, driving into the road?”

Galloway and Agrawal are working on a solution to that in the next phase of their research. They are testing newer robotic wheelchairs with sonar sensors on the front and back to keep the infant from bumping into obstacles or leaving a certain area. The next step is to test them in private homes. Their goal is to make a commercially available robotic motor chair for special needs infants to use indoors and outdoors.

“Every year we wait around is another year that kids sit for days and weeks and months, and we have a lot of work to do,” says Galloway.

Meanwhile, Andrew continues to get intensive physical therapy and is expected to walk one day. Terri Peffley says that he expectations for him are the same as for her other children.

“That he is happy and he’s successful in what he wants to do, that he makes a difference in this world,” she says.

Elsewhere on the Web:

Sunil Agrawal's research webpage

Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI)

       email to a friend by Sunita Reed

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